“You look like you’re ready to face a firing squad.”
Her field assistant’s words stopped Iris at the top of the grand palace staircase.
Suppressing a grimace at what she could not doubt was his all too accurate assessment, she turned to face the college intern and forced a smile. “You look hungry.“
“Seriously, this is just dinner right?”
“Of course.” Just dinner.
Where they were supposed to meet their liaison while in Kadar. Asad, Sheikh Hakim’s second cousin, or something, and sheikh himself to a local Bedouin tribe, the Sha’b Al’najid. Meaning lion, Asad was a fairly common Arabic name. She would think particularly for a man destined to be sheikh. Right? There was no reason to think that the man was her Asad.
No reason other than this awful sinking feeling that had not gone away since Sheikh Hakim had mentioned the liaison’s name earlier. She’d had a feeling of foreboding ever since agreeing to this Middle Eastern assignment that she’d done her best to ignore.
But it was getting harder with every passing moment.
“I’m not feeling reassured here,” Russell said as he stepped onto the stairs, his tone only half joking. “Dinner isn’t a euphemism for kidnap and sell to white slavers, is it?”
The ridiculous assertion shocked a laugh out of Iris. “You’re an idiot.”
Still, her legs refused to move.
“But a charming one. You’ve got to admit it. And who wouldn’t want to kidnap this?” he asked with a wink, having stopped to wait for her.
With his shaggy mop of red hair and pale skin, he could have been her baby brother. If only. Her childhood would have been a lot less lonely with a sibling. Her parents hadn’t been cruel, only supremely uninterested. Their lives were complete with each other. They worked together, they played together, they travelled together and none of it included her.
She’d never understood why they’d had a child at all and had long since decided her advent into the world had been one of those “accidents” of faulty birth control. Though nothing had ever been said.
She couldn’t imagine what they would have done with a child like Russell; he didn’t fade into the background with grace.
No, no matter how many surface resemblances they shared, he would have been an even bigger cuckoo in their family nest than she’d been.
Nevertheless, Iris and Russell really did look like they could have come from the same gene pool. Oh, he had freckles and she didn’t and his eyes were green rather than her blue. However, they both had curly red hair (like her mother), slightly squared chins (like her father) and skin as pale as the white sands of New Mexico. At five-foot-ten, Russell was average height for a man, just like she was for a woman at five-five.
They both tended to dress like the science geeks they were, though tonight she’d donned a vibrant blue sheath dress and a black pashmina. Instead of her usual ponytail, she’d pulled her hair back in a loose knot and even gone so far as to put on mascara and lipstick, though she almost never wore makeup. She was dining with a sheikh and his family after all.
Two sheikhs, her worried brain reminded her.
Russell was in his own version of dress formal, khaki slacks and a button-down oxford instead of his usual t-shirt and cargo pants.
Still, neither of them were all-that-and-a-bag-of-chips.
She groaned at his humorous conceit. “Anyone with half a brain would know better than to go through the trouble of kidnapping you.”
He laughed, not taking offence and not entirely masking a concerned expression she didn’t want to see.
No matter what, she would be fine. She would. She was no longer a naīve university sophomore, but a professional geologist with an eminent private survey firm.
“So, why the long face?” Russell asked, taking another step down as if coaxing her to do the same. “I know you tried to get out of doing this assignment.”
She had, but then she’d realized how foolish she was being. She couldn’t go through her career refusing the more than lucrative assignments in the Middle East just because she’d once loved a man who came from this part of the world. Besides, her boss had made it clear that this time, she didn’t have a choice.
“I’m fine. Just a little jet lagged.” Forcing her feet to move, she started down the stairs.
Russell falling into step beside her when she reached him, he put his arm out for her and she took it.
She wasn’t dwelling on the possibility that Sheikh Asad was her Asad. Not at all.
After all, what were the chances it was the same man who had done such a good job decimating her heart six years ago that she hadn’t gone on another date until after she graduated? That it was the one man that she had hoped to live the whole rest of her life without ever seeing again?
Small. Almost nonexistent.
So, her Asad had been part of a Bedouin tribe and, she’d found out at the end, slated to be sheikh one day.
It didn’t have to be the same man. She was praying it wasn’t the same man.
If it was her Asad, or rather the Asad — he’d never really been hers and she had to stop thinking of him that way — she didn’t know what she would do. Working toward the coveted position of senior geologist with Coal, Carrington & Boughton Surveyors, Inc., she couldn’t refuse this assignment based on personal reasons. Not when she was back in the office and definitely not now that she was already in country.
She wasn’t about to commit career suicide. Asad had taken enough from her, her faith in love. Her belief in the rosy, bright future she’d ached for and dreamed of. He didn’t get her career too.
“What did the diamond say to the copper vein?” Russell’s youthful voice pulled her out of her less than happy thoughts as they made their slow way down the stairs.
She rolled her eyes. “That joke is as old as the bedrock in Hudson Bay. The answer is: nothing, minerals don’t talc.”
It was a hoary old joke, but when he laughed, she found herself joining him.
“I’m glad to see you still have a sense of humor.” The deep voice coming from the hall below didn’t sound happy at all.
In fact, it sounded almost annoyed. But Iris didn’t have the wherewithal to worry about that little inconsistency. Not when the rich tones that still had the power to send her heart on a drum roll and little pops of awareness to spark along her every nerve ending belonged to a man she had truly believed she would never see again.
She stopped her descent and stared. Asad looked back at her, his dark chocolate gaze so intense, she felt the breath leave her lungs in a gasp.
He’d changed. Oh, he was still gorgeous. His hair still a dark brown, almost black and with no hint of grey, but instead of cropped close to his head like it had been back in school he wore it shoulder length. The different style should have made him seem more casual, more approachable. It didn’t.
Despite his European designer suit and their civilized surroundings, he looked like a desert warrior. Capable. Confident. Dangerous.
His brown eyes stayed fixed firmly on her. Serious and probing. The humor that used to lurk there nowhere in evidence.
He had close-cropped facial hair that only added to his appeal, as if he needed any help in that department. He’d filled out since university days too, his body more muscled, his presence every bit that of a man of definite power. At six-feet-three inches, he had always been a presence hard to ignore, but now? He was a true Middle Eastern sheikh.
Wishing, not for the first time, that she could ignore this man, she forced herself to incline her head in greeting. “Sheikh Asad.”
“This is our liaison?” Russell croaked, reminding her that he was still there.
It didn’t help. The young intern was no competition for attention to Asad and the feelings roiling up from the depths she’d stuffed them when he left her.
Putting his arm out to Iris, Asad showed no sign of noticing Russell at all. “I will escort you to the others.”
Her frozen limbs unstuck and Iris managed to descend the remaining stairs. Giving into her urge to ignore at least his suggestion, she stepped around his extended arm and headed to where she’d met earlier with Sheikh Hakim, his wife and their adorable children. If she were lucky, the dining room would be in the same part of the palace.
“Do you know where you are going?” Russell asked from behind her, sounding confused.
Asad made a sound that almost sounded like amusement. “I do not believe Iris has ever let a lack of certainty stop her from going forward.”
She spun around and faced him, long banked fury unexpectedly spiking and with it not a little pain. “Even the best scientist can misinterpret the evidence.” Taking a deep breath, she regained the slip in her composure and asked with frigid politeness, “Perhaps you would like to the lead the way?”
Once again, he offered his arm. Again, she pushed the bounds of polite behavior and ignored it, simply waiting in silence for him to get on with showing them where they were going.
“Just as stubborn as you ever were.”
And she wanted to smack him, which shocked her to her core. She was not a violent person. Ever. Even in the past, when he’d hurt her almost beyond bearing, she’d never had a violent thought toward him. Just pain.
“That’s our Iris, as immovable as a monolith.”
Asad didn’t ignore Russell this time. He gave the younger man a look meant to quell.
Seemingly oblivious, the college intern grinned and put his hand out to shake. “Russell Green, intrepid geological assistant, one day to be a full-fledged senior geologist with my own lab.”
Asad shook the younger man’s hand and inclined his head slightly. “Sheikh Asad bin Hanif Al’najid. I will be your team’s guide and protector while you are in Kadar.”
“Personally?” Iris asked, unable to keep her disquiet out of her voice. “Surely not. You are a sheikh.”
“It is a favor to my cousin. I would not consider relegating the duty to someone else.”
“But that’s unnecessary.” She wasn’t going to survive the next few weeks if she had to spend them in his company.
It had been six years since the last time she’d seen this man, but the pain and sense of betrayal he’d caused felt as fresh as if it had happened only the day before. Time was supposed to heal all wounds, but hers were still bleeding hurt into her heart.
She still dreamed about him, though she called the images she woke to in the dark nightmares rather than dreams.
She’d loved and trusted him with everything inside her, believing she finally had a shot at a family and a break from the loneliness of her upbringing. He’d betrayed both her emotions and her hopes completely and irrevocably.
“It is not up for discussion.”
Iris shook her head. “I...no...”
“Iris, are you okay?” Russell asked, proving maybe he wasn’t as dumb as the rocks they studied.
But she had to be okay. This was her job. Her career, the only thing she had left in her life that mattered, or that she could trust.
The only thing Asad’s betrayal had left her with. “I’m fine. We need to join Sheikh Hakim.”
Something glimmered in Asad’s dark chocolate gaze, something that looked like concern. She wasn’t buying it, not even if someone else gave her the money to do it.
He hadn’t been concerned about her six years ago when they had been lovers, it was too far a stretch to think he was worried about her now, when they were little more than strangers with a briefly shared past.
Asad did not offer his arm again, but turned and began walking the direction she’d been going to begin with.
So, she had guessed right in this instance.
Go her. Sometimes her intuitive thoughts were on target, at least when it didn’t come to people.
“So, Asad tells us you went to the same university.” Catherine smiled without malice, genuine interest shining in her gentian blue eyes.
Nevertheless, the memories her words evoked were not happy ones for Iris. Iris forced something that resembled a smile and a nod. “Yes.”
“It’s funny you should have met.”
At the time Iris had believed it destiny. She’d been studying Arabic as her second language, a common practice for those in her field, but it had felt like more. Studying the language of his birth had felt like a common bond between them, as if they were meant to be together.
She had believed him to be an incredible blessing after nineteen years of feeling like she never really belonged to, or with, anyone. She’d thought she’d belonged to Asad; she’d been convinced he belonged to her.
She’d been spectacularly wrong. He didn’t want her, not for a lifetime, or even beyond their few months together. And he was not hers, not in any sense.
“It was one of those things...” Asad had come on to her in the Student Union. He’d flirted, charmed and when he asked her out, she hadn’t even considered saying no.
“The Student Union building knew no class distinctions,” Asad added when it was clear Iris wasn’t going to say anything else.
“Not in age or social standing,” Russell agreed. “I met a billionaire’s daughter in the Student Union at my university.”
And Iris had met a sheikh. Not that she’d known it. Back then, he’d just been plain Asad Hanif to her. Another foreign student availing himself of an American university education.
“She was sweet,” Russell continued, “but she doesn’t know the difference between sedimentary and igneous rock.”
“So, not a friendship destined to prosper,” Sheikh Hakim observed, his tone tinged with undeniable humor.
“Our friendship prospered.” Asad gave her a look as if expecting Iris to agree, even after the way their friendship had ended. “Though I knew little of geology and Iris had no more interest in business management.”
“The friendship didn’t last, which would indicate our differences were a lot more important than they seemed at first.” She’d managed to say it without a trace of bitterness or accusation.
Iris had never really considered herself much of an actress, but she was channeling Kate Winslet with her performance tonight. She’d managed to get through pre-dinner drinks and the first course of their meal without giving away the turmoil roiling inside her to her hosts, the Sheikh of Kadar and his wife, just Catherine please.
Asad laid his fork across his empty salad plate. “Youth often lacks wisdom.”
“You were five years older than me.” And worlds wiser and more experienced.
He shrugged, that movement of his shoulders she knew so well. It was his response to anything for which there was no good, or easy to articulate, answer.
“Anyway, I hope my words haven’t made it seem I’m looking to renew any old friendships.” Chills of horror rolled down her spine at the thought. “I’m not. I’m here to work.” It was her turn to shrug, though it was more a jerk of one shoulder.
She’d never done casual well when it came to Asad, but it didn’t matter. She was in Kadar to work and then she would be out of his life once again, just as fully and completely as before. As she was sure he would prefer.
And she was never returning to Kadar. Not ever. No matter how lucrative a promotion depended on it.
“It would be a shame to travel so far from your home and spend no time experiencing the local culture.” Asad’s gaze bored into hers with predatory intent.
She remembered that look and her heart tightened at receiving it here, in this place, after everything that had passed between them and in his life particularly since their break-up.
“I’m sure living amidst your tribe will give both Iris and Russell the perfect opportunity to experience much of our culture,” Catherine said with a smile aimed at first Asad and then Iris. “I love staying with the Bedouin. It’s such a different way of life. Though why it always seems there’s more trouble for our children to get into in the city of tents than at home, I don’t know.”
She winked at her husband and Sheikh Hakim gave her such a look of love and adoration, it was both incredibly wonderful and painful to see. Here was a couple who loved each other every bit as much as Iris’ parents, but who adored their offspring with equal if different intensity.
Then the full import of Catherine’s words hit Iris. “We’re staying with Sheikh Asad’s tribe?” she asked in shock. “But I thought this would be our home base.”
The beautiful Middle Eastern palace that still managed to feel like a home for all its glamour and size.
“Our current encampment is far closer to the mountainous region you will be surveying,” Asad said, an inexplicable tone of satisfaction lacing his words.
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